Discussion Questions

I have been having a curiously difficult time coming up with questions to put to my class on "Animals in the Middle Ages," and I am trying to figure out why. Typically, almost all of the courses that I teach depend almost exclusively on discussion. I don't like lecturing at all, unless it is to help students read through a particular text (the actual, medieval meaning of "lecture": to read). My students don't need me to tell them stuff; they can get all the answers they want on Wikipedia. What they do need me to do is teach them how to ask the right questions of the answers. E.g. "42." Fine, but what was the question?

Most of the time I am teaching more or less exclusively from primary sources, so the questions are relatively straightforward, even if the answers are not. "What does the text say?" This can be tricky if you don't know why it was written. So, "what does the author of the text say about why he or she was writing?" This is the question that I ask my other class ("History of European Civilization") at the beginning of each discussion. By the time that we finish answering it, we are usually deep into questions 2 and 3: "Why was the author's subject so important that he or she considered it worth writing about?" (Because, of course, there are lots of important things that happen that nobody ever puts into words, so we can't take it for granted that anything ought to be written down; plus, writing is hard, nobody does it without good reason.) And "what does the author's interest in the subject tell us about the historical circumstances in which he or she was writing?" (By which point we are well on the way to talking about the text as an historical source but now we are aware of its limitations because we realize that it may not be telling us the whole story; likewise, we are watching closely for what the author wants to tell us.)

But what if, as in "Animals," we are reading mainly the scholarship in the subject, for the most part simply in order to learn what it says? Should I just drill the students each time on what the authors say? That works in part: "Tell me what you learned from this article." But rarely do the students realize (maybe now they will, if any of them are reading this blog!) that what I want them to do is go through the author's argument in detail so that we can see the structure of the argument as well as be clear about the kind of evidence that the author is using. This works better for some articles than others, particularly when the author is clear about the problems with the evidence that he or she was using. But--as is so often the case in the kind of social history that we have been reading--what if the author simply gives us a list of everything that he or she thought to find out about, e.g. rabbits? Is there something to discuss if we don't have the primary documents to hand?

We could, if only we had the evidence, spend our time arguing all sorts of ethical issues about the uses to which human beings have put animals, but for the most part the animals (sheep, cattle, horses, pigs) are simply there, being sheared, butchered, skinned, and eaten. We had a potentially lively problem today with rabbits and carp, but what do you say once you note how interesting the parallels are between warrens and fishponds, ferrets and pike, warreners and fish managers? I know, I know, it's the reason I'm not a social or economic historian, but surely there is something else to say. Or, rather, ask. The students came up with some really good questions about the reasons for introducing the rabbits and carp into England, but how do you answer them? Alas, alas, I started this post before dinner, but now I'm falling asleep. I may never figure this out.

Okay, maybe not never. But as I was walking the Dragon Baby home, I was stuffed full of thoughts about how limited the kinds of things that academic study is capable of answering are. Oh, good grief, even that sentence doesn't make any sense. See, what I really want to write about is how tired I am, how challenging I am finding this quarter, how panicked I am starting to feel about writing all the letters of reference that my students have requested, not to mention reading those applications, writing those book reviews (yes, the same ones that I've been behind on for months now), coming up with something to say for that conference in January, and on, and on. If only, I was thinking on the way home, I could figure this course out, then I wouldn't be quite so tired. But the reason that I wanted to teach it was to have time simply to read about rabbits and carp, falcons and hunts. I didn't actually have any burning philosophical questions about whether animals think or feel (they do) or how we should treat them (ethically). I just wanted to look at the animals.


  1. Well, clearly, you're now on to questions 2 and 3, if you know why you're teaching it!

    I've been reading about Aquinas a lot lately. In that context, if I were in your class, I would love to talk about what theological role animals took on, given their lack of soul. What did their use say about the author's view of his community, and the larger community (City of God) in relation to salvation? But then again, that's always my question...

  2. Ah, yes, do animals have souls? Actually, they do: that is what makes them animals, they have animae. But their souls are not immortal, which is what makes them different from human beings. We actually talked a good deal about this in the first two weeks of the course. It's the social and economic history that I'm finding somewhat hard going. Theology is a piece of cake--at least, my piece of cake!


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